Moore’s law dictates that the number of transistors in a circuit board doubles every year, this means that circuits get smaller and technology can afford to make bigger leaps year on year, but could this be mean the death of your classic car?
In a word, yes. Stephan Joest, consultant of electric vehicle components and president of the Amicale Citroën Internationale, has voiced fears that digital ageing and degradation of electrical components is leading to the ‘death on arrival’ of cars up to 40 years old. An ECU (Electrical Control Unit) is a small circuit board used to program and operate a single part of your car, from the Air conditioning and electric seats to the instruments and engine. ECU’s are crucial to the smooth running of your car.
Joest explains that the ‘cars of today have some 60-100 ECU’s controlling every aspect of the car’ and that at the rate technology is advancing, older ECU’s from the 1980’s onwards are getting harder to find, replicate or replace. This problem is one that faces all cars of a certain age as ‘digital ageing’ occurs regardless of marque or, more worryingly, how often the car is used. This can spell disaster for thousands of younger classic cars. Simply put, if we don’t find a way to replace or repair old ECU’s then classic cars will fast become ‘simply static objects in showrooms’ rather than the ‘lively cultural assets’ we currently enjoy!
‘To keep upcoming generations of classic cars running will be more challenging than in the past,’ confirms Fritz Cirener, head of Automotive Tradition at Robert Bosch. ‘Together with the manufacturers, we are working on this topic. There’s a long way to go but it will be worth it, if we want to preserve the technology for the younger and future user generations.’
The rate of progress with technology is nothing new in the automotive world as older cars become harder and harder to program, update and keep on the road. Take the McLaren F1 for example, in it’s day it was the most technologically advanced car on and leagues ahead of the competition. Today the F1’s life hangs in the balance as it can only be maintained and updated by a 20-year-old Compaq computer, which is out of circulation.
The early ‘90’s Compaq LTE 580 runs a bespoke CA card (think USB key that has codes to access sensitive car systems) to connect between the laptop and car. Using a bespoke CA card means the car cannot be accessed by any other computer or software, making maintenance a serious issue if anything were to happen to the laptop. What started out as McLaren using the computer and CA card for security and copy protection, has resulted in a frantic search to stockpile remaining examples of the laptop while they work on a solution to keep one of the world’s fastest production cars on the road, should the laptops stop working. The case of the McLaren F1 is a clear indicator that as technology moves forward, the software in cars means they’re becoming left behind and will be increasingly difficult to maintain.
But what does this mean for you and your classic car? Digital ageing could mean costly repair bills for electrical work in hard to reach places if left unattended for too long. The most at risk cars are ones from the 80’s and 90’s with early electrical adjustability. Early Range Rovers are often plagued with electrical issues, some of the most notable being faulty Seat and mirror ECUs. While seat and mirror ECU issues are not major and can be fixed fairly easily, they are telling of wider issues and the impending difficulty of keeping older cars electrically sound. Our advice is regular check ups and services as well as keeping a keen eye on the forums for help and experience of other issues in order to keep your car, and sanity, in check.
With the rise in alternative fuels, electric cars and hybridisation of vehicles the number of ECU’s in a car is only set to increase to control more of the car’s activity. This ‘futureproofing’ is a serious issue that needs to be examined by current manufacturers to make sure ECU’s in cars of all ages can be integrated with and supported through all technological changes. If nothing is done then, as Joest predicts, classic cars risk being left behind as ‘static objects’ that we can’t enjoy anymore.